Will Afzal Guru's ghost stir the fragile peace in Kashmir?

Towards the end of Sardar, Ketan Mehta's film on India's first home minister, based on Vijay Tendulkar's screenplay, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is shown sitting on a coir-strung cot in a rural household, having survived a plane crash in the Rajasthan desert in March 1949.

Sardar muses on his public life. He says to himself, more than to the others around him, that he does not know how the decisions he took in the best of public interest will eventually shape up. Would they turn out to be for the betterment of the country at large or blunders for the population to bear for years to come?

It is a rare moment, perhaps afforded only by a biopic, where the powerful man, often seen as the bad half of the good cop-bad cop Nehru-Patel combination that steered India past the immediate trauma of Partition, is shown reflecting on the implications of decisions taken in the heat of current exigencies.

Presumably, several contemporary Indian politicians must also be reflecting, at least occasionally, and in their strictly private moments, on their decisions affecting the nation in some way or the other. That said, there is seemingly incontrovertible evidence that exigencies alone are triggering a lot of political decisions that have ramifications across the country.

Why Was the Govt So Secretive?

When news broke early morning on February 9 that the Parliament attack accused, Mohammed Afzal Guru, was sneakily hanged by the Congress government, my instinctive reaction was that the 2014 general elections had begun with a medieval sacrifice. How is it that an Indian citizen, convicted, and with his presidential mercy petition rejected, is suddenly executed and buried, without even his family being informed?

Without going into the more detailed reasons of whether or not the procedural travel of Guru's case through the lower courts was flawed, as many who believe him to be innocent think, the law had spoken against him. The only way Guru should have been executed is transparently, and with all the due rights of a citizen of India made available to him. His family should have been privy to the final act of the state that had condemned him. His body should have been handed over to his family.

An utter disdain for the rights of the citizen and a blind, triumphant reading of a similar execution of a Pakistani citizen convicted of the Mumbai carnage of 2008, seem to be the only plausible reasons for such a decision of the executive.

Besides citizenship, there was another marked difference between the two men hanged. Ajmal Kasab was caught in the act, while Guru was convicted of conspiracy, always a dicey area, because circumstantial evidence and draconian laws, made specifically to contain extraordinary situations like insurgencies, drag it into deeper layers of legal grey.

So why is a government, seemingly fond of pluralism, inclusiveness and transparency, so secretive about a legally sanctioned death? It probably has to do with a certain Narendra Modi who addressed a meeting of students at New Delhi's Shri Ram College of Commerce a few days ago. His address was breathlessly reported, all inane alphabet soup and alphanumeric formulations in place, by a star-struck media.

The unapologetically Hindu rightist Modi had just made his debut as an uncertain national candidate for prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not that the Right is wrong, as a social impulse. This was Modi's first national address, and TV stations, constantly following film fanzines, accorded far greater value to Modi's star value than the dour politicians in Parliament did.

The decision to hang Guru was a quick way to defang one of the more rhetorical charges of the BJP, that the Congress was being soft on terror. Yet, it showcased a remarkable indifference to how the Indian society has changed since the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as the then finance minister, helped usher in a new era for India and Indians through his reforms in 1991.

Singh's government also helped midwife the Right to Information Act in 2005, a landmark legislation that was supposed to be the harbinger of a more transparent government, providing citizens access to vital governmental decisions that affect their life. It was to be another way to pump-prime the citizenry of a somnolent republic to contemporary times.

New Citizen, New Demands

These two significant policy shifts, more than a decade apart, and an earlier Rajiv Gandhi decision to lower the voting age to 18 years from 21, have created a new citizen. It is this precise republic of youth that Modi is aiming to captivate and capitalise in the general elections due next year. It is what is universally known as young India or Generation Y. The famed demographic dividend or youth bulge.

The mulishly bullish on India New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, says the "massive diffusion of powerful, cheap, computing power via cellphones and tablets over the last decade has dramatically lowered the costs of connectivity and education" and estimates that it has added, what he called, a 300 million "virtual middle class" to the real, economically realised one of the same size.

Friedman quotes the director of the United Nations' Human Development Report Office, Khalid Malik, as saying "Thanks to technology and the spread of education, more and more people are being empowered at lower and lower levels of income than ever before, so they think and act as if they were in the middle class, demanding human security and dignity and citizens' rights."

"This is a tectonic shift. The Industrial Revolution was a 10-million-person story. This is a couple-of-billion-person story," adds Malik. As is evident, India is living the Chinese curse of interesting times. And it is not unfathomable that many decisions taken today will seem foolish or prove dangerous some years later. The decision to execute Guru has the added current edge of that one great Indian fear: will it re-ignite militancy in the Valley?

The Congress seemed to have decided it would not, but took its own brand of care. It shut down the Valley again behind a thick blanket of heavy security in the form of armed paramilitary troops on the streets and then went one step further; it blanked out the internet and cellphones too.

Not surprisingly, protests sprung through the fissures in the security blanket and three people were killed in the heavy-handed attempts to contain the protests. Many had believed that Kashmir was finally reaching some kind of peace, especially since tourists started to flood into the state's scenic locales. Tourism has always been the publicly verifiable litmus about the health of the Kashmiri economy, if not social health, as its young chief minister reminded us in November.

A report at the time said Kashmir witnessed a 79% increase in visitor footfalls this season. The number of foreigners is gradually increasing. So far, more than 13 lakh tourists, including pilgrims to Amarnath, have visited Kashmir, of which 27,596 were foreigners. A successful tourist year led to the lifting of many advisories by Western countries. It started with Germany, followed by Japan and, more recently, the UK partially withdrew the advisory for urban areas of Kashmir. J&K gets more than 10 million tourists, mostly pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra.

Centuries of Violence

In 2009, I drove from Hindu Jammu through to Sunni Muslim Srinagar and then via Shia Kargil into Buddhist Ladakh. It was in the Valley, on the famed shikhara in the centre of the mesmerisingly beautiful Dal Lake, that I too heard a line from the delicate, wizened old owner of the houseboat that thousands of tourists have heard for very many years: "Hamarein Kashmir ko kisee ki nazar lag gayeen hain."

It was as if the man was speaking with racial memory. Kashmir has had an unusual history of psychological violence through the centuries. Ashoka's introduction of Buddhism into the Valley before Christ is credited with the decimation of the caste system among the Hindus there.

Only the cohesiveness and dominant social status of the Kashmiri Pandits as the practitioners of Kashmiri Shaivism remained. In the eighth or ninth century, Adi Sankara, the Hindu revivalist saint from Kerala, boosted Hinduism in the Valley after defeating other scholars in debate.

And yet when Kashmir fell to Islamic rulers from the Swat Valley of current Pakistan, one of the kings was particularly severe on the Hindus. He destroyed so many Hindu temples that he earned the name Sikandar Butshikan or Alexander the Iconoclast in the late 14th century. It is not only under the Muslim dynasties that the state suffered. Even the Sikhs were known to be unkind to the people. They passed several laws subjugating Islamic practice but also taxed the people exorbitantly.

After India's independence, too, Kashmir has been in the line of fire of competing nationalities. However, the latest insurgency that started in 1989 is just about being doused.

Authors Basharat Peer and Rahul Pandita, who were in their teens when the insurgency began, have written contrasting memoirs of their time in the Valley during those trying times. In a manner of speaking, the wider world was beginning to hear stories untold for too long from individual voices from the land of gurus, pirs and pandits.

Hopefully, Guru's ghost won't spook the font of new-found voices and the fragile peace in the hauntingly beautiful state. But that is a prayer that needs to reach fruition despite the cynicism, brinkmanship and opportunism of India's electoral politics.

(The writer, a former journalist, now travels and writes)

Source: Economic Times

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